“The Poem is What I Am”: Conversing with Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert
BY Sondra Peron

When I gave Jack and other poets a tour of my letterpress print shop a few years ago, he’d never seen a working press, and was overwhelmed by the complicated details, the general busyness, the minutia contained in this small space made smaller by five of us in the room. Paper stacked on the floor, printed sheets piled here and there waiting to be collated, shelves with reams and boxes, books, a line of tools hanging from nails on the wall, a short row of cabinets with drawer after drawer of metal type, a rack of leads and slugs, the galley cabinet where some type waited to be distributed, and even the two cast iron printing presses created a complexity that was quite orderly in my mind, but which was sensory overload in eighty-four year old Jack. Ever the gentleman, Jack nodded and smiled. I showed a few drawers of type, explained how they were organized, put a few metal letters in his hand. “Nice,” he said. I demonstrated how the press works. Jack said, “Very nice.” When I indicated the wall above the filing cabinets where several broadsheets were tacked, including a framed copy of his “Going Wrong” I had printed in 1992, all Jack managed to say was “Yes.”

For this man who had lived for extended periods in Europe and Japan without speaking those languages, this room behind the garage attached to my house was a foreign country. What he said next is most telling of who Jack is as a person and where his thoughts focused: “I am interested in your enthusiasm and obvious love for all this.”

Passion has always captivated Jack. No matter its source, a strong emotional connection thrills him. This isn’t surprising since Jack’s life has been one of discovering his passions and realizing them. Ask Jack about his writing routine or the process of composing any given poem and he shrugs off an answer as “meaningless details.” What matters to him is “the final product. The poem,” as he had told me on several occasions. His commitment to, his passion for writing is a given and the specifics lack importance. Similarly, whether I was extolling the virtues of Garamond or Deepdene type faces, such elements carry no weight with Jack. He only wanted to see the printed poem on the page. What captivated him was my zeal for letterpress printing and he knew that poets could trust that such passion would accomplish the right goals: the poem on the page as close to perfection as possible through the typographic and letterpress crafts.

One of Jack’s many awards was being appointed Poet Laureate of the City of Northampton, Massachusetts, from 2005-2007. His portrait by Sondra Peron was taken to commemorate the occasion. Upon completion of his laureateship, two groups of local poets celebrated Jack with readings of his poems, first by his workshop group, then by others organized at the local library. It was quite amazing to see, hear, and actually feel in the voices and tributes of these poets how Jack’s words, his artistry, his kindness and generosity have touched them. This from a poet born in that hard city, Pittsburgh, in 1925.

After high school, Jack held several mundane jobs, including steel mill worker, before enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh, where he met life-long friend and fellow poet, Gerald Stern. After graduating, he moved to San Francisco and became part of the beat scene, studying with Jack Spicer, befriending poets Allen Ginsberg and Laura Ulewicz. When his first book, Views of Jeopardy (1962) won the Yale Younger Poets Award, the handsome and accomplished Gilbert became something of a celebrity. Attempting to escape such fame and resume his solitary concentration on the writing of poems, he moved to Europe, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship and lecturing for the U.S. State Department. For much of the next twenty years he lived in Europe and on various Greek islands, publishing little but writing continuously. His second book, Monolithos (1982) celebrated such a lifestyle and extended his reputation as a premier lyric poet; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Keeping true to his iconoclastic leaning, his third book, The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (1994), wasn’t published until a dozen years later. After another long absence, Refusing Heaven (2005) — which won the National Book Critics Circle Award — was published. Tough Heaven: Poems of Pittsburgh (2006) gathered poems from earlier collections. The Dance Most of All, his new book, followed only five years later, a rare event in Jack’s publishing history.

The Red Coal

The Red Coal
BY Gerald Stern
(Carnegie Mellon
University Press,

Gerald Stern wrote in his poem, “The Red Coal,” “how strange / his great fame was and my obscurity,” which shows how two talented young poets diverged, Stern taking the typical career path of American poets (teaching and writing), while Jack obscurely wandered the world, reappearing every now and then with his poems. The complexities of his “great fame,” in the wake of winning the Yale Younger Prize, threatened to consume Jack’s being and his writing, so he simplified his life and escaped fame by living humbly on Greek islands. When I asked Jack in this interview if he had seen the new edition of Stern’s The Red Coal (Houghton Mifflin, 1981, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1999), he said he hadn’t. I showed it to him. Its cover shows split photographs of Stern and Gilbert walking in Paris in 1950 (from the original book) and the two of them head to head thirty-two years later in New York City. Jack’s face lit up briefly as he said, “Yes. Those were good times.” But he wouldn’t elaborate on those times or the friendship. Moments contain their own identities and those photographs had their moments, while now was a new moment. Jack’s poems are like this: he digs into the past to find the things that illuminate a present moment. Jack’s life is like this: memories (of persons, places, loves) serve the present situation.

Many interviewers over the years have asked Jack why it took him that long to publish his second book, incredulous that a poet of his skill would not leap at the opportunities available to him. Most of these interviewers have been poets themselves, and many, if not all, concerned at least as much about their own careers as about regard for Jack’s poetry, or for Poetry (with the capital P). They seem to believe that Jack’s publishing only five books in fifty years as some sort of failure of his particular gifts, as if poetry could be quantified. Henry Lyman, Jack’s friend, tells me that Jack has boxes and boxes of unpublished poems, that Jack was always writing. Always. Apparently for Jack, being a poet means writing poems, not necessarily publishing, giving readings, being reviewed, or receiving prizes. He has done all of that but cares more for the current poem in process than the aftermath.

…for Jack, being a poet means writing poems, not necessarily publishing, giving readings, being reviewed, or receiving prizes. Jack has done all of that but cares more for the current poem in process than the aftermath.

Readers of Jack’s poetry will know how thematic love is, how the grace, beauty, and sensuality of women are central to many of the poems. Two women appear and reappear in the poetry: Linda Gregg and Michiko Nogami. Both are dedicatees, individually and together, to the books. Both are former wives of the poet. We readers must thank them for inspiring Jack just as we ought to be thankful to Jack for returning these themes to the contemporary scene.

Jack acknowledges in this interview the writing of the poem, any one of them, was always a struggle, and that the struggle almost killed him many times. He leaves it at that. A mystery that consumes the poet in various ways so that only he can truly understand how a specific poem came to be. The process doesn’t matter. The poem matters. The reader, the scholar, and the critic must accept this as it is and, hopefully, be thankful that the poem is there for us to ponder, tinker with, and let fill our hearts with sadness or joy. For the curious reader, the faithful reader, there will always be more we want to know about a poem that moves us. Thus, this interview, which took place on April 23, 2009 in Northampton, Massachusetts at the home of Henry Lyman, and which I initiated after reading Jack’s newest book.

The Dance Most of All

The Dance Most of All
BY Jack Gilbert
(Knopf, 2009)

Tough Heaven

Tough Heaven:
Poems of Pittsburgh
BY Jack Gilbert
(Pond Road Press, 2006)

Refusing Heaven

Refusing Heaven
BY Jack Gilbert
(Knopf, 2005)

The Great Fires

The Great Fires
BY Jack Gilbert
(Knopf, 1996)

In your new book, The Dance Most of All, “Ovid in Tears” is my favorite. When I first read it, I literally felt chills down my spine. How did you come to write this poem? What inspired it?

The Years. If you live a long time. It’s hard to say. But it’s kind of you to say this about my poem.

How do you squeeze so much history into this poem?

I cheat.

Is there a poem or two in your new book that are your favorites?

No. There are so many.

What do your poems mean to you?

Being alive.

Were the poems in the new book written after Refusing Heaven was published?

Some new. Some old. It’s hard to focus on any one poem.

What poems of others matter to you?

So many. My life for so long was reading. You write not from a book but from life. The world was so much alive. It all goes together.

You have such a distinct poetic voice, your images, metaphors, your rhythms are unique. Even your phrasing is your own, sort of like the difference between Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett singing the same Cole Porter song, say, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” How have you avoided the influence of other poets?

If that’s true, thank you. But how can I tell if others have influenced me? I do believe in my own poems. My poems are not struggles. The poem is what I am. It’s what was there.

One of your distinctive poetic traits is the declarative statement, even when such statements may not be true, such as “Ghosts are by their nature drawn to/the willows” from the poem “Becoming Regardless.” How does this technique add to your poems?

It was so natural. I really never thought about it.

You use the word “machinery” in “Painting on Plato’s Wall” in the new book (“We cobble together/from this and those of our machinery/until there is suddenly an apparition that never existed before”), and use this term in several poems from various books. Can you explain what you mean by this “machinery”?

Life is a machine and it’s because I am living it. The poems are always there in the machinery. I lived so much with the poems in my life. I wasn’t looking for the poems. They were there. It was a struggle to try to make it perfect. But it was always there. There’s a lot of art, but there’s also a lot of struggle in writing the poems. I like that struggle.

Jack Gilbert, Fall 2008
BY Julio Granda

If there wasn’t such a struggle would the poetry be worth it?

If it was easy it would be less. It was wonderful to find what I was looking for. If it is easy, it doesn’t interest me. It isn’t easy if you are writing beyond yourself. I knew what I wanted to say but it was hard to get it to say what I wanted. To be alive was very hard. It was always easy to write but it was always difficult to get to the point beyond. I was always reaching.

In the body of your work you often mention Pittsburgh and growing up in Pittsburgh, but these seem more points of reference for other things you say in those poems. The poem in the new book, “Neglecting the Kids,” however, seems wholly autobiographic, almost confessional…

It is autobiographical. It’s exactly what happened and it is so strong it was hard to handle it in any other way than in a poem. It’s easy to lie to yourself. But if it’s easy, I’m not interested. I was always trying to get beyond. Is it sometimes too hard? Sometimes it almost killed me, the struggle to find what I was saying. It was almost always easy until I tried to find what I was. If it’s easy, I don’t trust it. It can be a nice poem but for me I want to get beyond that.

What is there beyond a nice poem?

Deeper. It’s easy to write a poem. It’s hard to write beyond that.

The poem, “A Fact,” is set in Greece. Was using a Greek-root word, such as meniscus, part of this struggle?

I don’t trust easy poems. The word “meniscus” in the poem —getting that one word correct was part of the struggle. It’s not just the effort. It’s finding the right thing to say. A lot of times hard work doesn’t solve it. But the struggle leads to happiness when it comes out, finally, right. And finding the better thing I had overlooked by going deeper.

Gary Metras and Jack Gilbert, Fall 2008
BY Julio Granda

How should memory function for the artist, the poet?

It’s largely what you get back from life, from all your efforts. It’s in the things you gave to your life.

In “Not Easily” you have this beautifully sad declaration: “We can swim in the Aegean/but we can’t take it home.” (Jack smiles broadly and shakes his head once in approval as I read the line.) How is memory related to joy, and joy related to sadness in this poem?

You get used to it, the sadness. But my poetry, my life was also a gift. Not for pride, but for surviving. That’s a lot.

Some people seem to have a natural talent for baseball or basketball or the violin. They seem to play by instinct. Do you write poetry by instinct? Are you a poet by instinct?

I think both instinct and practice. Both living it and being alive with it. I read a lot but the poetry is almost always that thing. For me it was so natural.

When you look back at your previous work, say, The Great Fires, how do you feel about it?

I don’t look at them. But it makes me happy that the poems are there. There is sort of an accumulated sense of satisfaction, but that’s what I had expected. Easy success is not very pleasing. It’s nice, but not very exciting.

In “The Secret,” you say, “Irregularity is the secret/of music and the voice of great poetry.”This poem has 15 lines so it is sort of an irregular sonnet. And the new book contains 49 poems, a bit irregular in itself. Were these conscious choices? What else do you mean by “irregularity”?

I like that line. I don’t know about the consciousness. But I did this all my life. The irregular. Perfection is dangerous. The difference is what there is in the poem, in the life. I think the most striking success is like that, the irregular. I didn’t plan the number of lines. It just happened. And the number of poems? Who knows?

Do you have another book in you?

I wonder. I wonder. I don’t know if I will. It’s easy to give up. I trust in the fact that I can write well. When I’m working a poem, I’m almost always focused on that one.

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